Monday, July 18, 2011

"Clare's Law", Domestic Violence and a little knowledge being a dangerous thing

The government is considering whether women should have the right to ask police if their partner has any violent criminal convictions. "Clare's Law" is being proposed in memory of Clare Wood, a woman who was murdered by a man she met on Facebook (a detail that isn't very pertinent but has been made much of in the press). Leading the campaign, Hazel Blears said,
“Women in Clare's situation are often unaware of their partner's previous
relationships and this can mean they start a relationship with someone with no
idea if they have a violent past. Clare's tragic death shows how vulnerable
women aren't always protected under current law, and until women are given the
right to know if their partner has a history of serial domestic abuse, they
can't be sure of the risk that they face.”
This makes me very sad and frustrated. Incurable Hippie has already raised some concerns. Let's break down what Blears has said here and why it misses the point on how domestic violence works:

Women in Clare's situation are often unaware of their partner's previous relationships and this can mean they start a relationship with someone with no idea if they have a violent past.

People targeted by abusive men and women are always unaware of their partner's previous relationships because abusers tell lies. Abusers are usually good liars and vulnerable people often believe those lies. Lies might include, “My ex lied to the police to get me into trouble.” Abusers are very good at telling stories about how they have been hard done by and mistreated by others because that's how they explain events to themselves, let alone everyone else.

My ex accused me of slagging him off to everyone before I had told anyone about the full extent of the abuse. When I was with him, I believed his story that I was the only person who had provoked him to violence, but with hindsight I realise this is extremely unlikely. He'd described a few previous relationships which had ended abruptly and where friends had taken sides against him. He only ever confessed to one incident, when in his youth he had hit a girlfriend when they were both drunk and she was “hysterical” and throwing things at him – it was practically self defence, but of course he felt bad about it years after. In that case, he gave his victim a black eye, so conceivably this was something I might get to hear about some day.

As far as I know, my ex has never been reported to the police for anything. The whole problem with domestic violence is that you often don't understand what is happening while it is going on and afterwards you just want to get on with your life and have nothing more to do with your abuser. Unless you are seriously injured, there are real limits to what you could do about it even if you were motivated to act. The vast majority of people who have committed violence against a partner will never have come to the attention of the police.

Clare's tragic death shows how vulnerable women aren't always protected under current law

If Clare Wood had known about the history of the man who went on to murder her, she would not have entered into a relationship with him. The question is, had this law been in place, would she have asked the police about him? Most women do have relationships with men, but how many women would actually ask police about their new partners? And how many men would feel less than very uncomfortable at the idea that their girlfriend had run a police check on them?

Even having experienced domestic violence, it would never occur to me to run a police check on any new partner. If a woman has any reason to feel suspicious about a new partner, something is very wrong. It doesn't mean the chap is a villain, but it would suggest to me that something to do with those two people is at least slightly amiss. As in, they should probably leave it there.

But there's also this issue of "vulnerable women". When I consider my own vulnerability, my big problem was that I didn't trust myself. When things went very wrong, I didn't take my own distress seriously. I let someone else tell me what was okay and what wasn't. And this new law seems to be saying,
“Ladies, do you think your new chap may be a violent bully? Don't trust your gut – ask a policeman! Has he hit you once or twice? Well not to worry your pretty little head. If he has no criminal convictions, then he's probably a perfectly nice chap and the violence is just something you bring out in him.”
Added to this is the damage even the reporting of such an idea does to gender equality. One of the reasons that domestic violence prevails is ideas about the normal behaviour of men and women. Even with everything I knew about this, even having studied psychology, part of me bought the line that my ex couldn't really help himself – I'd felt angry to the point of wanting to punch people on occasion but of course, I didn't have testosterone to contend with. We accept male anger and aggression as normal, even necessary for heroism in our cultural narratives. As a very young and inexperienced woman, I didn't know where the line was between “normal” masculine anger and aggression, and abuse. Clare's Law promotes this confusion – it promotes the idea that there's a fine line and that line is only crossed when a prosecutable crime has been committed.

And this disadvantages everyone – not only does it cast men as dangerous to women and children until proven innocent, but it affirms the idea that domestic abuse is always men beating up women. Women are vulnerable, men are dangerous and any man who finds himself being abused simply doesn't fit into this universe. Men are much less likely to die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, but they are only slightly less likely to have their lives ruined by abuse.

We need to make vulnerable people less vulnerable. We need to promote a culture in which all men and women have both the confidence and the practical and economic ability to make choices for themselves based on their own instincts and desires. The government are considering this new law, having made massive cuts to benefits, legal aid, funding to refuges and even police budgets. This government is making vulnerable adults a lot more vulnerable than they used to be – a law offering false reassurances to untrusting women is not the answer.

And, incidentally, following Clare Wood's death, the Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that she had been badly let down by the police. Not the law, but the police who are supposed to enforce it. She had reported being sexually assaulted, threatened and harassed by the man who later went on to murder her, months before he killed her. The new law would only have saved her if she was suspicious enough to run a check at a very early stage, whereas the current law should have saved her regardless.

Until women are given the right to know if their partner has a history of serial domestic abuse, they can't be sure of the risk that they face.

But they never can – and no-one should imagine that a police check can protect them or their children or anyone from anything. We need to address the social and cultural factors which leave some adults vulnerable, normalise intimate violence and allow abusers to get away with it. As Pippa says in her post, the idea that any woman might have her doubts about her new partner's temper, run such a check and be lulled into a false sense of security is truly terrifying.

Meanwhile, men who are a danger to women, anyone who has been repeatedly and seriously violent against anyone, perhaps shouldn't be out of prison in the first place?

And before I go, I have to say, there is nothing special about on-line relationships. People having a relationship with anyone who is outside of their existing circle of family and friends are slightly more vulnerable to villains of all variety, but there's nothing special about meeting on-line – in fact, it is possible to share several mutual friends with someone you meet on-line. Meanwhile, people get together with total strangers off-line and always have.


Anonymous said...

You make good points! The best way to stay safe is to trust your gut, get to know as many people in the potential partners life as possible, take it slow, don't tolerate any disrespect and have the confidence to leave the relationship behind at anytime. Laws can not make the world a safe place but they can enforce intolerance of disrespectful behavior. Teaching values of respect, everyone feeling responsible and accountable for each others safety as a community and treasuring vulnerability rather than viewing it as weakness are some of the keys- I think.

Carrie said...

Unfortunately it's a dangerous world out there, and meeting/dating people is no exception. I agree with starrlife in that you need to trust your gut which saved me from an abusive relationship years ago. I watched how this guy treated his mother (verbal abusive) and promptly broke up with him.


Sage said...

I think Carrie makes a good point - or at least it can sometimes work. There are no guarantees. In my last relationship, his dad treated his mom like crap, and he treated her like crap too. It was only a matter of time before that attitude shifted my way.

But, yes, this is an area where knowing priors isn't the solution. If only it were that simple.

Anonymous said...

The problem as I see it in all these ideals is the question of where does one draw the line or put faith in a system.
Any information is only relevant at a particular point in time, and as I have found information and d identity can easily be falsified, even by staff of the system to suggest a Police Check is a good gaurentee of Safety at any time after it has been completed is a dangerous falicy, be careful and use gut feeling and common sense in any situation Trust you self at all times.

Unknown said...

This is a great post - I found your blog because I was interested in Blogging against Disabilism & I am very sorry to have missed May 1 - and I find a very interesting post about the problems with the propsed Claire's Law.
I don't see how this law is going to protect people who are being abused. As you pointed out Claire was let down by the police who didn't take her seriously enough or didn't do their job. I suppose the law may help a few women but what about women who don't have an inkling their new man is abusive? WHu have no reason to ask the police if he has any criminal convictions?
And a lot of abusers don't have convictions...

Anyway, you raised some great points. I think this is a topic that could be discussed for along time.

I recently started a blog about me and my disability: and I have a Book reviewing and Cat blog, too:

I'll be back to visit!

Bankruptcy Attorney Chicago said...

This is really nice post to have. and it's also true you have trust on guts that will make you more safe.

Anonymous said...

"If Clare Wood had known about the history of the man who went on to murder her, she would not have entered into a relationship with him."

Are you sure about that? Sadly, too many people do enter relationships with people they know are untrustworthy, or violent, on the premise that "I can change him/her."

Then there are those who have witnessed abuse, fom childhood, inside their own families, and grow up to assume and accept that such behaviour is the norm. I believe, to take an extreme case, that the late unlamented Fred West was one such; he is reported to have said to the police "doesn't everybody do it?"

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone.

Yes, I think that there are various clues - like the treatment (and even the behaviour) of other family members, but people do get good at covering that up and most of the time, we're not looking.

Charles, you're quite right, of course. Which is why we must address those aspects of our culture which tell that narrative (serial bad-guy turns good for the right woman) or allows people to grow up thinking intimate violence is normal.

Anonymous said...

Hi ! Iv been told by the police to leave my home ! the dvu. would not be aloud to rehome me in the area! see me at high risk! but not once have i been told why? In new property after coming out of womens refuge!He still after 5 mths trying to scare me! Iv been offered another refuge!I don't know how much my life is in danger or my family!oNLY THE DVU UNIT KNOWS HOW DANGEROUS HE IS! YES WE DESERVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW! iF cLARE'S lAW WAS IN NOW! I COULD ASSESS HIS CAPABILITIES IN ORDER TOO SURVIVE.Butterfly

keth said...

Charles - I knew Clare. I not believe she would have put up with bad treatment of her by anyone. She was a lovely lady. She deserved better than what happened to her. Immensely better.